The greatest Lions: Willie John McBride

Date published: April 6 2017

In a new series building up to the 2017 tour to New Zealand, we remember some of the greatest players to ever wear the Lions jersey.

First up is the Lions player who has appeared in more Tests than any other, Willie John McBride.

Compared to game’s modern day locks topping two metres, McBride would come up short, but his stature in the sport of rugby has never been solely based around physical metrics. McBride was an inspiration to those who played alongside him. As leaders go, there have been few finer to ever pull on a Lions shirt.

McBride dominated the sport during his heyday in the 1960s and 70s be it for Ireland or the Lions, his exploits meaning that even today he is regarded as one of the greatest locks to have ever played the game.

For 13 years McBride represented his country, winning 63 caps. But it was with the Lions where McBride built his true legacy, going on a remarkable five tours in 1962, 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1974.

“I loved playing for my country but there is something so special about the Lions,” he told back in 2013.

“No other sport has four nations coming together to tour and take on the best. To be considered one of the best 30 players at the time was special stuff but it was, for me, a complete shock to be selected.”

McBride’s three tours in the 60s, twice alongside his Ballymena RFC team-mate Syd Millar, all ended in defeat. But it was in New Zealand in 1971 and then South Africa in 1974 where he built his legacy, when McBride as Lions captain led the tourists to a first ever Series win in the Republic.

Fresh from his first Ireland cap in 1962 the Lions headed to South Africa with McBride in tow for a 25-match tour, unthinkable in the modern game.

Despite winning 15 of their matches, and drawing four, their six defeats included three Test losses to the Springboks after an early draw – a 3-0 loss in Durban and an 8-3 defeat in Cape Town before being blown away in the fourth and final Test in Bloemfontein 34-14.

Four years later McBride was again selected, this time to tour Australia and New Zealand. A remarkable 35 matches, finishing up in Canada no less, saw the Lions twice defeat the Wallabies, without McBride playing, but lose all four Tests to the All Blacks featuring another of the game’s great locks in their midst, Sir Colin Meads.

1968 marked another winless tour against South Africa, leaving McBride without a win in his nine Test appearances to date when he was selected to tour New Zealand in 1971.

McBride, an experienced veteran, was named pack leader despite having shown plenty of hesitancy over the prospect of going on another tour until he was persuaded.

In New Zealand he was part of a squad full of now legendary figures; Gordon Brown, Mervyn Davies and Fergus Slattery not to mention the great Welsh backs Gareth Edwards, Barry John and JPR Williams, along with Ireland’s Mike Gibson.

That accumulation of talent, and an 11-game winning run in their warm-up matches ahead of the first Test all quietly built up confidence, as the Lions won 9-3 at Carisbrook.

A loss was to follow in the second Test in Christchurch, setting up the third Test in Wellington with the teams all square; a 13-3 triumph giving the Lions a 2-1 advantage.

Following the 14-14 draw in Auckland, with McBride at the heart of the pack, the Lions secured their first-ever series win in New Zealand as McBride got the better of Meads in a momentous contest.

All paving the way for 1974 when McBride, aged 34, was named Lions tour captain for the first time. Accusations that he was too old to make the Lions three years ago had been disproven. Now nobody was viewed as more important than the big-boned farmer.

Led by McBride and coached by Millar the Lions achieved the unthinkable, an unbeaten 22-match tour – 21 wins, one draw – with a squad teeming with those players from 1971 added to by the likes of Phil Bennett, Roger Uttley, Fran Cotton and a certain Ian McGeechan.

McBride’s influence stemmed as much from his words as his performances. His post-match verdict to prop Mike Burton regarding the respected Transvaal prop Johan Strauss spoke volumes. “I see that man was done. His heart will never be mended. With the Springboks, something like that stays with them for ever.”

The Test wins followed – 12-3 at Newlands, then 28-9 at Loftus. All before that famous Test in Port Elizabeth, and the ’99’ call. With South Africa’s nose bloodied, proverbially, the match is infamous for crossing the line, including a 30-man plus search for Johan de Bruyn’s glass eye after it was punched out.

For those unfamiliar, McBride’s ’99’ call referred to the whole team retaliating should one player come under attack, forcing the referee to either send off the whole team or nobody after the melee. The result is often forgotten, a 26-9 win, wrapping up a historic series.

The chance to end the tour with 22 wins from 22 games sadly went begging, held to a 13-13 draw, with a late Slattery try denied by the referee. History by then however had long been made.

It marked the finest chapter of McBride’s illustrious career. No one has played in more Tests for the Lions than his 17 appearances. McBride embodied toughness and leadership, and his stature even now in his 70s remains undiminished.

In 2001 he addressed the Lions before presenting them with their Test shirts, a team in the professional era far removed from the collection of part-time bankers, teachers, doctors and farmers who conquered South Africa in 1974. The message however remained the same.

“Your bodies are right because you’ve done the preparation, now your minds have to be right,” he was quoted as saying in The Independent.

“You don’t blame the guy who drops the ball, or the guy who’s not there to cover the situation, because you’re a team, and you’re all in it together, and it’s how you react when your backs are to the wall that will show what kind of team you are.

“None of that has changed. It’s exactly the same as it ever was.”

by Ben Coles